Dissecting a heuristic we use every day — consciously and unconsciously. Source: Pixabay

What People’s First Name Can Tell You About Their Background

How name giving is related to the distribution of income and power.

mage meeting your sibling (if you have none imagine a close childhood friend) after a prolonged period of time and he or she tells you about this girl/boy he/she is currently dating.

Almost certainly one of the first questions you will ask will be forms of
“How old is she?”
“What does he do for a living?”

and especially “What’s her name?” in case it doesn’t arise out of the discussion.

The above-mentioned questions seem to be most suited to reveal information that help us characterize a person we don’t know anything about quickly and efficiently — otherwise we wouldn’t bother to ask them primarily.
Whereas information about the profession and the age seem to be obvious starting points to put a person into a certain box, some people might argue that the request for a person’s name mainly serves the purpose of identification and referencing.

Whilst there is definitely some truth to this, just imagine your brother telling you his crush is named “Angel” or your younger sister telling you about her serious intentions with “Cody”.
I take any bet that all else being equal you’d prefer your brother marrying “Katharine” or your sister seeing “Benjamin” more often.

But why would that be? We don’t know anything about the person behind the name and yet we get strange feelings when we hear certain names as opposed to others. We seem to use a persons given name intuitively as a heuristic.
Heuristics are nothing but a mental rule-of-thumb to derive a broader picture quickly and efficiently based on very limited information.
Decisions based on heuristics can be terribly flawed and lead to displaced behavior, but in terms of evolution they proofed be to highly beneficial for decision making when time and information was limited but stakes were high.
When you see your tribe running away, better start running too.
When you see a snake, better back off.

“While the individual person often is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty.”

Judging people according to variables they have absolutely no control over (such as gender, racial background or religion) is highly immoral, wrong and immature, thus it is rightfully outlawed and condemned in modern societies.
Our first name too is a variable attached to our identity for life that we both had no power choosing and can hardly change.
Nevertheless a person’s first name seems to be a reliable signal of how we can expect the person to behave on average until we have the opportunity to collect further more meaningful information.
It’s our best guess. We can know about the error rate, but still feel about it the way we feel.

My father — working as a physician his entire life — once told me that he always had an initial diagnosis popping up in his head based on a persons facial expressions, body language but also his name, and that his instincts often proved right.

Reverse-Engineering Our First Name

Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner did some very interesting research in their book Freakonomics on what conclusions we can draw based on a persons given name.
As our parents choose our first name upon birth, it’s apparent to assume their particular life circumstances to have some influence over the choice of our name. Levitt & Dubner analyzed a comprehensive dataset from child births in California to examine which factors — if any — let parents name their baby “Amber” vs. “Alexandra”. They confirmed the hypothesis that child names do not only vary widely among different racial, but also socioeconomic backgrounds. It may be an inconvenient truth but low-income and education parents tend to name their children very different than wealthier parents. And unfortunately, research has found our parents financial and educational standing to be among the strongest predictors of our own academic and financial success. This does not mean that children out of poor families are stupid or lazy, it rather indicates that children out of wealthy families still have more and bigger opportunities with regards to education and career success.

According to all the above findings, it makes little sense to name your child as only the very rich would do in the hope that his or her name would affect their life’s outcome. A way more promising approach to enhance your child’s prerequisites for a successful life is too improve your and your spouse’s own level of education and income to the extent possible.

Accordingly when we hear a persons name we learn more about his or her parents’ background than we do about the person itself. It’s also important to remember that even if the probability might not be distributed evenly, “Marie-Claire” can also end up in prison, while “Destiny” can proceed to win a nobel prize.

I conclusion, the research on the relationship between person’s living conditions (such as income, education and health) and their name speaks volumes about equality in opportunity and permeability of social classes. As a society, I think we would strongly benefit to make a person’s success less (does not mean not at all) depended on their family background and more on the individual capabilities, diligence or ambitions.
Whether and how far IQ or work ethic are inherited is a different question I can’t answer.

Trained Economist, Entrepreneur and Athlete from Germany.

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